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In a tasty twist, HuaHua’s Taqueria Executive Chef Todd Erickson created the Apple Pie Taco—a hard-shell taco coated with cinnamon sugar, filled with flan, apple pie filling and topped with whipped cream. photo courtesy of huahua’s taqueria. Make dessert more enticing by adding an exotic hint to familiar and much-loved forms

By Katie Ayoub

Dessert is the final frontier of flavor exploration. Today’s diners have conquered kimchi in bar-bite tacos. They’ve cleared the summit of spice rubs, flagging Spanish paprika, aji pepper and Chinese five spice as center-of-the-plate accents worth the risk. But after the bravado of trying bold flavors in small plates, entrées and sides, many diners seek familiar shelter on the dessert menu.

But although the spirit of discovery is slightly fatigued by the time it crosses over to the sweet side of the meal, it is gaining strength. And it holds tremendous potential for dessert menu distinction.

“Flavor experimentation is happening with desserts last—but it’s definitely happening,” says Rachel Kalt, creative solutions manager for The Culinary Edge, a culinary consultancy in San Francisco. How we see this boldness taking shape is through international flavor touches on familiar desserts. Dulce de leche cheesecake. Saffron panna cotta. Green tea macaroons.

As with all successful sustaining trends, flavor has to trump novelty. “It has to satisfy all of the diners’ needs—high quality, good value and great flavor,” says Kalt. “How do we distill fine-dining cues into the fast-casual and casual world?”

The challenge is not pushing that diner too far. Laura McGuire, senior content and editorial manager for Technomic, serves up two examples of familiar forms with adventurous flavors. On the extreme side: the togarashi cheesecake with peanut-sea salt crunch, miso caramel and blackened pineapple, served at the upscale Milkwood in Louisville, Ky. This might be too intricate and too bold for most segments outside of fine dining. On the just-bold-enough side, says McGuire, is Kona Grill’s Passionfruit Crème Brûlée. It strikes the sweet spot—a familiar form with just a hint of exoticism.

a gentle leap of faith
“Give your diner a frame of reference with just a few leaps of faith,” says Melissa Abbott, senior director of culinary insights with The Hartman Group, a market research firm based in Bellevue, Wash. We all understand cake, so it’s no wonder there’s potential for international adventure here. At The Bazaar in South Beach, Fla., José Andrés serves a Pastel Chocolate (dark-chocolate mousse cake) with Cuban coffee ice cream. It’s chocolate cake, but it reflects the brand beautifully with a clever sense of place expressed through the ice cream accompaniment. At Fat Rice in Chicago, the familiar pineapple upside-down cake gets an exotic finish with Xerez vinegar caramel.

At The Corner Office at the Curtis Hotel in Denver, Executive Chef Rich Byers offers a Dulce de Leche Cheesecake served with salted caramel ice cream, passionfruit syrup and a Brazil nut tuille. “I have prep time, but my pick-up time is limited,” he says. “This dessert looks like it takes a long time to put together, but it doesn’t.” The Brazil nut tuille and the passionfruit syrup bring in an authentic Brazilian feel while the dulce de leche plays off a familiar Latin flavor.

Further afield, but perhaps an indicator of fringe trends worth tracking, take a look at Craftsman & Wolves in San Francisco. “Nothing they do is down the middle,” says Kalt. “But they’re making headlines with their bold flavors.” As evidence, look to their Cube Cake featuring chocolate, caramel and Vietnamese cinnamon and their Matcha Coconut Travel Cake. Or head back to Chicago and look at the desserts from Kym Delost of Storefront Company. She serves Grilled Rice Cakes with pickled berries, tobacco ice cream and buttermilk caramel.

In Denver, a dose of Latin spirit makes The Corner Office’s Dulce de Leche Cheesecake more intriguing, with salted caramel ice cream, passionfruit syrup and Brazil nut tuille. photo courtesy of sage restaurant group

Custard’s Next Stand
With custards, you are halfway to exotic. Flan, crème brûlée, panna cotta—these are all custards from foreign lands with a strong immigrant presence on American menus. They provide a delicious, creamy platform for exotic spices, tropical fruit flavors and authentic ingredients.

Rosa Mexicano is a 15-unit polished casual concept that seems to understand the need for authenticity balanced with familiar dessert forms. One such example is the Flan de Rosa, a vanilla flan infused with espresso and served on a warm ancho chile brownie and Mexican cinnamon whipped cream. At Rasika in Washington, D.C., Saffron Panna Cotta extends the exotic theme of the restaurant in an uncomplicated presentation. And at the ChopHouse & Brewery in Denver, diners can find a Ginger Coconut Crème Brûlée, a custard baked with fresh ginger and coconut milk and garnished with candied ginger.

But where crème brûlée may find an eager audience, panna cotta might just be a step too far for some folks. In New Orleans, Restaurant R’evolution’s Erin Swanson has run both a lemon panna cotta with a sweet-tea gelée, grilled peaches and a peach-ginger relish and a Creole cream cheese panna cotta with strawberry gelée. “They were both so delicious—light and fresh and not too sweet—but they didn’t sell well,” she says. “Next time, I’m going to call panna cotta a mousse instead. I think that’s more approachable for our diners.”

Pudding Goes Global
We’ve certainly seen a resurgence of pudding, stemming from the retro desserts and comfort-food trends. But to give pudding a bolder visage, some operators are looking to international flavors for that “Wow!” factor. At The Bombay Club in Washington, D.C., a rice pudding is scented with saffron and dotted with raisins. At Bibiana, also in D.C., diners can enjoy the Italian take on pudding—the budino. Here, it features Robiolina custard, tiramisu mousse, amaretti crisp and coffee gelato.

At Restaurant R’evolution, Swanson is working on her version of the English classic, sticky toffee pudding. “I’ll probably put dates in the toffee pudding and then serve it with buttermilk ice cream and fresh figs drizzled with local honey,” she says. One of her best sellers is a hybrid of pudding and custard called White Chocolate Bread Pudding Crème Brûlée. She serves it with lemon-scented apricots, salted bourbon-caramel sauce and vanilla whipped cream and garnishes with a sugar nest and Maldon sea salt.

A traditional Chinese spun-sugar treat, this version of Dragon Beard Candy from pastry chef Vera Tong features a sweet peanut-butter filling. photo courtesy of National Peanut Board/Battman.

Pastry as a Global gateway
What culture doesn’t boast some form of sweet pastry? From baklava to pie, pastry makes your starting point familiar and craveable. There’s the more adventurous mochi ice cream served between two soft rice pastries at How Do You Roll?, an Austin, Texas-based quick-serve sushi concept with 11 units and growing. Or Sumi Robata Bar’s take on the doughnut: the Donatsu, a Sansho-chocolate filled doughnut with a matcha mousse. Or the more familiar ingredients in the Apple Jalebi, an Indian version of the beignet. At Rasika, it’s paired with cardamom ice cream. “Apples keep it in the comfort zone,” says The Hartman Group’s Abbott. “Your customer can look at an exotic dessert that features apples and say, ‘I get this. I like apple pie, therefore I’ll probably like this.’” That’s what The Corner Office banks on with its Apple Empanadas, spiced crème anglaise and port carmelo. “The empanada is from Portugal and the pastry is authentic,” says Byers. “It’s very similar to American pastry; I just use shortening instead of lard.”

This dessert sells well for Byers. “Empanada is a word that people recognize and go for,” he says. “It’s a bit different, but readable and orderable.” Distinct but approachable is dessert innovation’s sweet spot, especially when it comes to the adoption of global influences.

“What’s important to remember, and why it’s so great to innovate around familiar desserts, is that consumers don’t always like different, but they always like better,” says The Culinary Edge’s Kalt. “Ground the flavors in the familiar, and if you’ve built a brand that consumers trust, then they’ll try these desserts.”

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About The Author

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Katie Ayoub is managing editor of Flavor & The Menu. She has been working in foodservice publishing for more than 16 years and on the Flavor team since 2006. She won a 2015 Folio award for her Flavor & The Menu article, Heritage Matters. In 2006, she won “Best Culinary Article” from the Cordon D’Or for an article on offal.